Texas hosts a rare glimpse into history with a group of dedicated individuals
who present the story of The Buffalo Soldiers, a unit of black U. S. soldiers.
Originally ordained by the U. S. Congress on July 28, 1866, this military group
still exists within the U. S. Army today-although in a different form. Based
in Austin are ten men, six women and two younger fellows who portray the Buffalo
Soldiers of old-complete with mounts, uniforms and weapons.
Horace Williams, President of Company A - 9th Calvary of the Buffalo Soldiers/First Ladies of Texas, said that the group specializes in educational programs and does a short demonstration and explanation of the original soldiers’ purpose. During the 1800’s, Congressional members believed that the black man would make a poor peacetime soldier. As an experiment, in 1866 Congress formally set up the 9th and 10th Calvary as a black militia unit to serve and protect a huge area of the United States that stretched from Texas to North Dakota. The soldiers were charged with guarding telegraph equipment and poles, railroad lines, and roads from Indian attack. At the time, each soldier was making $13 a month just like any other soldier in the U. S. Army and got to “enjoy” meals of hardtack and fat back and general provisions. Of course, there were other forces for the soldiers to watch for such as bootleggers and squatters. The Mexican Revolution complicated life in their part of the world, too.
Williams wryly noted that although the original units were equipped with hand-me-down equipment, the current military unit that operates as the 4th Division, 10th Calvary out of Fort Hood, TX, and was recently shipped off to Kuwait this past spring, sports top-of-the-line and snappy Army equipment today. The current fighting military unit has access to computerized fast-moving tanks rather than the horses it once used.
In 1867, the Buffalo Soldiers had their first battle with Indians. This occurred a year after the unit had been formed and involved the K Company, 9th Calvary in the Battle of Fort Lancaster in West Texas. The soldiers won the battle despite bring outnumbered by the Kickapoo Indians 900 to 100. Having firearms also worked in their favor. Prior to that, though, the Indians were reluctant to tussle with the black soldiers as they thought at first that spirits had answered their prayers for the return of the buffalo in the form of the black men as the Indians equate the curly hair of the soldiers to the manes of the fast-disappearing buffalos. The buffalo was considered sacred by the Indians. And another fear that the Indians had was that the soldiers might use the same ruse that buffalos sometimes did of circling back and attacking from the rear. Williams explained that is why so often the Indians saw running the buffalo off cliffs as an answer to obtain food and hides as many times their spears did not kill the animals. They needed a fast and safe way to kill the animals while hunting. So, technically, the group got its name as Buffalo Soldiers from the Plains Indians.
One Buffalo Soldier, Emmanuel Stands, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor when he and only two other soldiers took control of an Indian horse-stealing situation and were able to retrieve their animals. Another interesting fact is that the 9th Calvary had the least amount of deserters than another military unit at the time. That was because many within the unit were ex-slaves with nowhere else to go and the military life became home for them. Many of the soldiers hailed from Louisiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and South Carolina. As more were recruited, it became a good thing to put any who were literate in charge of various bigger tasks such as troops, the mess, supplies, and to be promoted almost immediately to rank of sergeant. Each company numbered 100 and were lettered “A” through “I”.
General George Custer declined a promotion to their units and decided to work with the newly formed 7th Calvary. This proved to be beneficial for the Buffalo Soldiers-as Custer’s arrogance later led his 7th Calvary to its ill-fated slaughter in the Battle of Little Big Horn. And unknown by many, the Buffalo Soldiers were with Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders as they over took San Juan Hill in Cuba during the 1890’s. Williams described a famous picture of the event in which a Buffalo soldier is at the foot of the hill already “posting” it by planting an official Company A - 9th Calvary gird eon flag while Roosevelt mounts the hill. The Buffalo Soldiers at the time were ground soldiers.
The Buffalo Soldiers’ uniforms come from Gay Fazer of Dallas who brokers re-enactment and historical military equipment for a specialized company out of Philadelphia. Some of the equipment used by the Buffalo Soldiers today are true artifacts, but many of them are reproductions. The uniforms are 100 percent wool and the soldiers wear them no matter what the weather. Williams noted that it helped to have a cotton layer underneath to help dissipate the heat.
Once in a while, the group is paid a nominal fee for its appearances but usually the group volunteers on an educational display only. Usually the group sets up an encampment near the school, church, or business that has requested their services and places “soldiers” and their mounts around a dug out campfire. Williams was careful to delineate the difference between a re-enactment and living history. The Buffalo Solders do what is called a “living history” display as they refrain from the acted-out bloodshed that often comes with a re-enactment.
For the past three years, they also offer the Taferd G. Collins and Don Nesbitt Scholarship which is awarded during an Upward Bound event held at Huston-Tillotson College in Austin. Academic scouts with the program find a deserving individual that is a single parent (of either gender) and of high school age and on the “fast track” academically.
Williams, himself, served in the Army for 22 years. He was stationed in Hawaii when he first learned about the existence of the Buffalo Soldiers, as he would frequent an infantry museum maintained by the 27th Infantry. There he saw a tiny notation about the black soldier unit. Then, later he settled in Austin and in 1990 ran into a constable named Don Nesbitt who wore a Buffalo Soldier insignia patch on his uniform signifying his participation (and founding of) a Buffalo Soldier unit of his own. Out of curiosity, Williams asked Nesbitt about the patch. The group Williams helped found along with Nesbitt’s help was officially formed in 1994. Just this past February, the Buffalo soldiers have made appearances at the George H. Bush Presidential Library in College Station and the Cowboy Art Museum in Kerrville. Last year Williams left his two horses at home and was a guest speaker on the group’s behalf at the event celebrating Juneteenth at the Kids’ Museum in Virginia. The group has several upcoming summer appointments as well. It seems that the current Buffalo Soldiers are in keeping in step with the two Calvary unit’s mottos: for the 9th-“We can. We will”, and for the 10th- “Ready and Forward”.
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